6 Barriers to Effective Learning for Frontline Employees, and How to Avoid Them

6 Barriers to Effective Learning for Frontline Employees, and How to Avoid Them

17 March 2021

Training & learning | Internal communications

Knowledgeable, well-trained and highly engaged frontline employees are your brand's biggest differentiator in 2021. 

Training that empowers frontline teams to learn effectively is the best way to create and maintain a workforce like this. 

But when it comes to learning on the job, there are a surprising amount of barriers to effective learning. This applies to everyone on some level, but none more so than frontline employees.

That's because they're always on the move and jumping from task to task, whether it be helping customers, manufacturing products or traveling. That means they have far less time to dedicate to training than their office-based peers. 

Frontline employees are onboarded much faster than average and have to retain information perfectly so that customer experience, quality and even safety don't suffer.

Without the right strategy to make workplace learning accessible, engaging and collaborative, frontline employees will struggle to learn effectively. 

Read on for 6 common barriers to effective learning, why they're especially applicable to frontline employees, and how to avoid them.

Short on time? Watch this short video blog instead: 

Learning Barrier Blog

#1 - Cognitive Overload

Cognitive load theory stipulates that our working memory can only process a limited amount of information at a time before we lose the capacity to process anything else.

Moving new knowledge and behaviors from working memory to long-term memory requires us to store chunks of information as “schemas”, which are groups of information with a specific theme or function.

So, employees who are presented with large amounts of new information are in danger of overloading their working memory. One study estimated that working memory can only hold 3-5 meaningful items at a time in young adults.

If new concepts aren’t grouped into schemas and transferred to long-term memory, employees won’t retain information.

Frontline employees are at an even higher risk of cognitive overload. 

That's because the default way of training most frontline employees tends to be an information dump over the first few days or weeks of onboarding, then radio silence for months.

Information dumps like this contain lots of information that's relevant to frontline teams, and lots of information that will never be relevant, or just isn't relevant right now.  


#2 - Passive vs. Active Learning

When learners observe, read, or listen to information, they’re learning passively. Active learning involves decision-making, creating and analyzing information.

Active learning functions require more neural connections in the brain, which promotes increased retention of the information. The problem with passive learning is that learners are less likely to retain the information because they don’t have to use complex thought processes. This makes the information less likely to stick and leaves learners vulnerable to cognitive overload.

What’s more, passive learning has been and continues to be the default mode for learning. We can see this everywhere from university lecture halls to a frontline employee’s first onboarding session.

Due to the hands-on nature of their work, frontline employees need to apply new concepts to retain information. Reading, watching and listening won't help knowledge stick  - unless you follow it up with an opportunity for frontline employees to apply what they've learned. 

#3 - Insufficient spacing and repetition of information

Cramming information into one day may be less expensive for employers, but the long-term cost is employees not retaining the information.

Studies have shown that spacing out learning sessions results in better retention of information than cramming the same information into one session. Studies also show that repeated exposure to information leads to faster and more efficient retrieval of the information later on. Revisiting information at least 3 times is ideal.

That means that one-time training on important information isn’t likely to stick, because it’s just not how our brains learn.

And while an office-based employee can always ask a peer or manager if they've forgotten or don't understand something, many frontline employees don't have this option after their initial onboarding. 

#4 - Social vs. individual learning

Social learning theory, originated by psychologist Albert Bandura, puts forward the idea that people learn by watching and imitating the behavior of others.

Another learning theory, the 70-20-10 model, posits that learners get 70% of their knowledge through on-the-job experience, 20% from their peers and 10% from formal training.

Considering that the majority of training for frontline employees is centered on individual learning, the absence of social learning becomes a real problem. That’s because working on the frontlines is an inherently social job.

So by focusing on formal training centered on the individual, employers are only providing employees with 10% of the means to effectively learn the material.

#5 - Motivation to learn

Self-determination theory puts forward the idea that individuals are most motivated by experiencing autonomy, competence and connection. What does this mean for training?

It means learners have to know what’s in it for them - intrinsically, not extrinsically.

Extrinsic motivations to complete training, like financial gain or making sessions mandatory, just aren’t as effective as intrinsic motivators like seeing progress, personal development, and experiencing deeper connections with others.

Effective learning for frontline teams has to provide these intrinsic motivators, because employees work across multiple locations and shifts, making them prone to feeling disconnected from the rest of the organization. 

#6 - Limited Attention Span

It’s estimated that adults have an attention span of no more than 8 seconds. Others think this is an oversimplification.

Either way, one thing’s for sure - people can only focus on one thing for so long, and frontline employees know what it’s like to have a constant barrage of distractions and competing priorities.

It’s debatable whether long training sessions are suitable for even the most desk-bound of office-goers, let alone an employee spending the whole day on their feet, jumping from task to task.

Effective learning for frontline teams needs to be formatted in short, engaging chunks, also known as microlearning

Related: A Guide to Microlearning: What It Is and Why Your Employees Need It


So, what have we learned today, class? Let’s recap. The ideal training program should:

  • Break training down into manageable, bitesize chunks
  • Actively engage the learner
  • Incorporate social learning
  • Provide learners with intrinsic motivation to succeed

Luckily, YOOBIC has got you covered. Check out our mobile learning solution to find out how you can support and empower your frontline employees to give their all, every day.